Gaugamela Party Time!

A battle report from the Society of Ancients Battle Day, 3rd April 2004

It was with some trepidation that I approached the SOA Battle Day. I mean, I'd heard the rumours, I still had the worry that the SOA were a bunch of extremely clever people who had sublimated their inability to get a girlfriend into becoming world experts on Roman boot strapping of the First Century AD. I hesitated to appear lest my lack of chunky cardigans and post pubescent acne mark me as an outsider to be humiliated.

Then, of course, there was the worry of meeting Rob Avery in the flesh, so to speak. Supposing he was a grotesque dwarf with vile personal habits, I mean what do you do? Polite chit chat and admiring comments about the Vis Bellica rules could last for a few minutes but suppose he drooled uncontrollably? What do you do in those circumstances? Offer a Kleenex? A bucket?

Fortunately, my fears were groundless. The SOA members were extraordinarily pleasant people and not a cardigan, chunky or otherwise in sight. Friendly and helpful, it was something of a culture shock to find people laughing and smiling and making jokes. I mean, this is NOT what the SOA is said to be about. Indeed, what was quite amusing was that a friend of mine had also come down from Cambridge and we met in the carpark with almost guilty looks on our faces.'re a member too!

As for Rob, a sterling fellow and not a spot of saliva or repulsive habit in sight. Indeed, he bought me a beer so he gets my vote for sainthood.

But I digress.

Gaugamela is one of those battles that we all read about, try ourselves, watch Alexander get his sorry backside kicked out of Persia and go away sighing about how real life just won't obey the common sense parameters laid out in wargame rules. It was therefore fascinating to listen to Phil Sabin and Duncan Head explaining things clearly and simply without using long words (the bar having been open for some time by this point). My thanks to them.

What about Vis Bellica? Well, as I have written before it is an excellent system for the scenario battle. It's not a tournament set of rules. There are probably secretly hidden super troops out there somewhere who are worth a point of two more than you actually have to pay for them but, frankly, I don't actually care. Although the scale of Gaugamela is huge, in theory, Vis Bellica should have been able to handle it. We had the figures. We had the table. We even had the players. Let's roll!

Roll we did. Twice.

The morning's battle saw me assume the mantle of Darius himself and the Persian left wing. My august colleague took on Mazaeus and all his massed troops on the right. Facing us were sterling fellows and cunning warriors. 

How did the battle progress?

My initial battle plan was simple:

  • Find Alexander.
  • Kill Alexander.
  • Cast the campaign medals.

I am not given to complex plans.

This, however, had to be tempered by keeping the King of Kings safe and trying to prop up my overburdened command structure. Once orders had been given, it was virtually impossible to bring troops back under control. The best I could hope for was to feed points into preventing disorder and rallying anyone who got a little upset.

On the left, Bessus' cavalry thundered down and ploughed into the Greeks. It was a hard fought bash, particularly stopping Johnny Prodromos from stabbing me in the bottom with his lances but numbers began to tell. The Macedonian Lights were masked by a swarm of Scythian horse archers who engaged in a long missile duel but at least they plugged a hole in the line through which nothing could come. The phalanx ground forward slowly and I began to feel nervous. On the right, Mazaeus had charged another line of phalangites with his heavy cavalry and watched them expire in a feculent pile of horse and rider. He assured me that all would be well and that he had reserves who could take the subsequently disordered pike block but I remained concerned and mentioned the possibility for travel that an unsuccessful satrap might enjoy, particularly his nose and ears.

At that point a gap opened in the line. The two large pike phalanxes had separated and pushed forward. However, killing large chunks of Mazaeus' heavy cavalry had slowed one up while the other continued to advance regardless. The Companions were maneuvering at the rear and things began to look bad. Fortunately, my reserves got to the gap first, the Companions being delayed by suicidal onslaughts from the last of the scythed chariots and a ragtag collection of Apple Bearers, Greek mercenaries, heavy cavalry and an elephant swarmed over the pike block and its exposed flank sweeping it away in a tense battle. The entire Greek right flank evaporated leaving the Companions to escort the Greek Pretender from the field. One up to the Servants of the Fire God.

The Second Battle saw the rolls reversed with my apotheosis as the Son of Amon Ra, Zeus and any other syncretic deity that I could call upon for help. Phil Steele took on the mitre of Darius opposite me and I had to work out how to counter the tactics I had used in the previous battle. My answer? Go "mental" of course! The Macedonians had by far better command and control abilities. I had felt that my opponent had let me off the hook in the previous battle by keeping the Companions in reserve for most of the battle.  

I determined not to let my opponent have the same advantage. The entire line began to stomp forward and to the right. Mercenary units were sacrificed to stand in the way of the oncoming horde of enemy horse. The Agrianians and Cretans led the charge on the enemy centre. At one point, every unit on the Macedonian right was charging into hand to hand combat. At all costs, the initiative had to remain mine. So we took losses. So we had enemy units sitting behind us. As the doom laden 5pm approached, the tactic had succeeded. The Companions, the Hypaspists and the Phalanxes had advanced right upto the enemy centre in good order and were ready to start collecting apples and Royal Mitres aplenty. We hadn't got much else left on the table but the King of Kings was looking for the reverse gear on the chariot and no one else was in a position to help him. Rob awarded us a draw. He was probably right.

Meaningful conclusions? You want meaningful conclusions?

Oh, right. was fun!  I played with a huge table of toy soldiers all day and had a brilliant time.

Rob acted as umpire and worked out all the numbers and just told me to roll some dice while I allowed my excess of personality to infect those around me. It was fast, it was furious and it seemed to work. Light infantry gutted the scythed chariots. The Companions rode through hordes of lousy Persians like butter but the Greek mercenaries died faster than red-shirted security guards in Star Trek. Worked for me.

That's the thing about Vis Bellica. It's sophisticated enough that you can take a beer-head like me, let me loose with it and I'll have fun and probably come up with some realistic results at the same time.

Any downsides? No, not really. I expected VB to cope with this sort of scenario well and it did. The book-keeping was simple. The rules flowed swiftly. Anyone looking for a sound set of rules to play with, try VisBellica.

My only concern was with the battle itself. You see, we'd got through to the Persian centre like we were meant to but the damned King of Kings was still sitting there. Phil Steele had not fled the room screaming in panic. That's when it struck me about Gaugamela, the thing about the battle that still makes it a difficult one to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. Darius didn't run away. That's the problem, really isn't it? There's nothing in the rules to reflect the fact that a man raised to the Divine Presence's representative on Earth, the ruler of the greatest empire of its age, on the day, bottled it and ran away. 

The invasion of Persia is a two sided story.  On the one hand, there is the brilliance and awesome power and energy of Alexander. On the other hand, there is the complex personality of Darius, who lost the battle just as much as Alexander won it. It's easy for us sitting in the rather excellent Sycamore Hall in Bletchley to keep our nerve and pile in the Massagetae with gay abandon. How, I wonder, would we cope if we were faced with the real thing on the fields of Persia? Would we find it so easy to keep our nerve? I hope I never find out.

My thanks to Rob and all those who were unfortunate enough to encounter me. Before you ask, no, I don't have a volume control :-).